The locker Berkman had occupied for the last few years was completely empty, and 23-year-old rookie Brett Wallace ran onto the field at first base during pregame introductions. Berkman, one of the franchise's greatest players, is an Astro no longer.
The Astros finalized a deal Saturday to send Berkman and $4 million to the Yankees in exchange for two Minor Leaguers, completing a whirlwind 48 hours that saw the club trade away two of its most recognizable stars in Berkman and Roy Oswalt.
"I almost started bawling on the way home last night just thinking about it," Berkman said. "There's a lot of emotions. Several times last night I didn't sleep very well and thought, 'Man, am I doing the right thing?' It's so hard to leave so many great players and I have so much invested in the organization and they have a lot invested in me. You feel like it's kind of gone, and that's a tough deal."
The Astros received pitcher Mark Melancon, 25, and infielder Jimmy Paredes, 21, from the Yankees, two days after they wound up with a pair of Minor League players and pitcher J.A. Happ in the deal that sent Oswalt to Philadelphia. Wallace, who was acquired in a secondary trade with Toronto, takes over for Berkman at first base.
Houston general manager Ed Wade said the club had come to the decision it would not pick up Berkman's $15 million option for 2011 and didn't want to risk offering him arbitration, so it decided to ask him to waive his no-trade clause and try to get something in return.
"We felt the ability to add more depth to our system made sense for us to move forward, and we believe with Melancon and Paredes, we did that," Wade said. "Melancon, we've got a guy if we need him, could come up and pitch out of our bullpen [Saturday], and he's still young enough to help us for an extended period of time."
Berkman was selected by the Astros in the first round of the 1997 Draft out of Houston's Rice University and rose quickly through the Minor League system, making his Major League debut in '99 when Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were in the primes of their careers.
Houston won the National League Central division in '99 and 2001, and in '04 won the NL Wild Card and its first playoff series before losing in seven games to the Cardinals in the NLCS. The Astros reached the World Series in '05, with Berkman hitting a key three-run homer in Game 5 of the NLCS and batting .385 in a World Series sweep at the hands of the White Sox.
Berkman, who began his career in the outfield before taking over for Bagwell at first base, ranks in the top three in franchise history in batting average (.296), home runs (326), runs scored (1,008), walks (1,040) and RBIs (1,090). He's a five-time club Most Valuable Player and five-time NL All-Star.
With Bagwell ('05) and Biggio ('07) retiring and without a strong Minor League system, the club began a gradual decline that resulted in a fifth-place finish in '09 and a 43-59 record entering Saturday. After undergoing knee surgery during Spring Training and missing the first 13 games of the season, Berkman struggled for much of this year and was hitting.245 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs in 85 games.
"We're not playing well for the second year in a row and things weren't going well for me, and I felt a change of scenery would do me some good," he said. "I'm at the point of my career I needed to retire or find something that would light the fire again. It's a very difficult first four months of the season for me, and this is a litmus test for me to see how much more baseball I have left."
Berkman told the club earlier this year he would be willing to waive his no-trade, and with the club struggling, Wade approached him Wednesday with a list of teams that included the Yankees. Berkman said he would have approved a trade to the Rangers and Cardinals, in addition to the Yankees, and would have considered the Padres and Rays.
"We saw this as an excellent opportunity," Astros owner Drayton McLane said. "We're getting two players we're very, very excited about and so we just see this as a good opportunity for us and for Lance. Maybe it puts a spark in Lance."
Berkman, who was reunited with close friend and former Astros teammate Andy Pettitte, will be the Yankees' designated hitter for the rest of the season. He expects to be a free agent at the end of the season and didn't rule out returning to Houston, where he has put down roots with his wife and four daughters.
"Clearly, [the Astros] wanted to get younger," Berkman said. "They didn't necessarily want a rebuilding process, but I know they wanted to turn over the roster a little bit. Knowing that, I felt I might be part of that and you really never think it's going to happen, but this year was a perfect storm of events that led to it happening."
Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez is the only holdover from the 2005 World Series team, and left fielder Carlos Lee is the only big-money player left on the roster. Lee, who has two years left on his six-year, $100 million contract after this season, was surprised by the trade.
"Oh my gosh, I thought I'd never see that happen," he said. "That wasn't good news for me seeing that Lance was gone. He had a choice to stay if he wanted to, but he felt it was the best for him to go. He'll have the chance to play for a team like the Yankees."
Melancon, who had Tommy John surgery in October 2006, throws in the mid 90s with a power breaking ball and good changeup. He was taken by the Yankees in the ninth round of the 2006 Draft and is 18-3 with a 2.84 ERA and 14 saves in 123 career relief appearances. He's pitched 15 games in relief for the Yankees, posting a 4.87 ERA and spent most of this year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He will report to Triple-A Round Rock.
Paredes, a Dominican switch-hitter, had been in the Yankees organization since being signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2006 and hit .282 with five homers, 48 RBIs and 36 stolen bases at Class A Charleston this year. He played 71 games at second, but has also seen action at shortstop and third base. He'll report to Class A Lexington.